RHC 2019: Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads.

Alternate: A collection of poetry published since 2014.

Springdale, Arkansas (near where I live) is home to the largest population of Marshallese nationals outside of the Marshall Islands. That migration started in the 1970s and snowballed from there, in an emigration pattern quirk that lends a wonderful and unique blend of languages and cultures to the area.

Nevertheless, there’s uncomfortable complexity to that escalating migration in terms of what it means for Marshallese identity as more and more people leave the islands. This Guardian article gets into that.

Now, there is an absolutely disgusting history between the US and the Marshall Islands. I know there’s a lot of black marks in US history, but what the US did on Bikini Atoll should be something we handle the same way that Germany handles the Holocaust, by taking it extremely seriously and educating everyone here about exactly what happened and what we can do to prevent anything even remotely similar from happening ever again.

We… don’t do that.

Here’s the gist of what my history textbooks left out. The US performed 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, which not only permanently displaced people from those atolls but spread radioactive fallout over unevacuated and very much inhabited neighboring atolls, leaving an ongoing legacy of cancer, birth defects, and generational trauma, not to mention fatally poisoned ecosystems.

By way of wholly inadequate apology, the Compact of Free Association (which also includes provisions for the United States maintaining its Kwajalein Atoll military base, so it’s not like the US isn’t still acting in its own self-interest here) allows Marshallese citizens to freely enter and work without visas, though they aren’t eligible for most federal aid programs (Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security). Their kids can attend school, though, and they’re eligible for health insurance through work – solid enough reasons for some families to make the move.

Recently, the Marshall Islands have been showing up the news because of another existential threat also driven by larger, wealthier nations – same song, different verse. The low-lying Marshall Islands atolls are among the top four nations most vulnerable to climate change. Marshallese and other island nation activists have worked and are working incredibly hard to bring their fight to continue to exist to the international stage. You can read more about mitigation strategies being discussed here. There’s also a PBS Frontline documentary called The Last Generation (free online) that follows three young Marshallese kids, if you’d like to really confront the very human reality of this.

That brings me to this collection of poetry, which includes the poem “Dear Matafele Peinem,” which Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner performed at the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York in 2014 (video below). The poem contains a passionate promise that her daughter will have a Marshallese future. 

Her expression of the effects of racism, nuclear testing, climate change, and displacement is intensely personal and frequently physical. Several of these poems are very anchored in the body, specifically the body of a Marshallese mother (the collection title translates as a “basket whose opening is facing the speaker,” and can also refer to female children). The collection opens and concludes with concrete poems both called “Basket,” where the text flows from the top of the page in a basket shape and teases out the title’s significance. 

One of my favorites was “History Project,” which describes the poet’s high school History Day research project. That one really jumped out at me because I work in a library, which means a) I help tons of teenagers with their History Day projects, and b) I interact with lots of Marshallese teens, and I appreciated this perspective. There’s so much (incredibly justified) anger and infuriating societal ignorance in that poem, and you can really feel Jetñil-Kijiner ‘s reasons for working with youth through her nonprofit in it. 

In addition to her poetry, Jetñil-Kijiner is one of the founders of Jo-Jikum, a Marshallese nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness and empowering young people to take action against climate change. That’s significant, considering about half of the population of the Marshall Islands are under eighteen. It’s also work that casts Marshallese kids on the islands and overseas not as helpless victims (which is a common slant in news coverage) but as powerful forces for positive change. 

Her poetry is ferocious, warm, furious, and hopeful. I tore through this book quite a bit faster than I meant to, and then I wound up reading the whole thing again. I highly, highly recommend it, whether or not you’re a poetry person. She’s talking about extremely important stuff, and it hits even harder in this format than in a dire news report or a frightening statistic. 

One thought on “RHC 2019: Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter by Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner

  1. No one’s drowning, baby. No one’s drowning. I want to give that same assurance to Eula. And I love that you continue to be passionately interested in the Marshallese, because I’m pretty sure that they need friends. At least they can now, as of this week, pay in-state tuition at Arkansas’ second-rate institutions of higher learning.

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